Lobbyists turn to Gore, first lady

White House roles provide platforms to display influence

September 02, 1999|By Jonathan Weisman | Jonathan Weisman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- For five years and to no avail, Devorah Halberstam had been imploring federal agents to reopen an investigation into the shooting death of her son, Ari, by a Lebanese gunman on the Brooklyn Bridge.

But after Hillary Rodham Clinton launched her all-but-declared bid for the Senate, Halberstam's luck changed dramatically. Halberstam's allies delivered a personal appeal to the first lady. Clinton began raising the issue with White House officials, and last week, the Justice Department said it had reopened the case.

The Halberstam episode is perhaps the clearest example of how Clinton administration policy has been subtly influenced by the political needs of the president's heirs apparent: Hillary Clinton and Vice President Al Gore.

Where lobbyists and activists once may have focused their attention on President Clinton, they are now increasingly seeing Gore and the first lady as pressure points they can press to win their battles.

Those battles range from minor local issues to major national policy decisions, from the Navy's fight to retain its bombing range in Puerto Rico to a Year 2000 liability law, from major bank reform legislation to possible clemency for Jonathan Pollard, the imprisoned Israeli spy.

"We're really trying to take advantage of the fact that Hillary came to New York and said she wants to know what's on the mind of New Yorkers," said Dov Hikind, a New York state assemblyman who is pushing for the release of Pollard. "We're letting her know what's on our mind."

There is nothing illegal about such attention. And aides to Gore and the first lady say there is nothing unseemly about it.

"Any time you become a candidate for president, particularly if you're the front-runner, you are just a much bigger target for people with agendas," said Chris Lehane, a spokesman for Gore. "It just comes with the territory."

Howard Wolfson, a spokesman for the first lady's Senate exploratory committee, said: "I don't think it's atypical for candidates running for office to hear a wide range of views on a wide range of subjects."

But it is hardly typical of a Senate candidate to have the omnipresent ear of the president of the United States. And though presidents have often made policy concessions for the vice presidents who hope to succeed them, few vice presidents have been as close to their presidential partners as Gore.

In some cases, such as the Halberstam investigation, the pressure appears to have worked.

In other instances, the proximity of Hillary Clinton or Gore to an issue has fueled criticism from Republicans. The president's offer of clemency to 16 Puerto Rican terrorists has been seized on by White House opponents as a dangerous ploy to win Latino votes for the first lady, though there is no evidence that Hillary Clinton was involved in the issue.

In still other cases, the results of the political pressure are not yet clear. A loose confederation of Jewish activists is pressuring the first lady to secure Pollard's release, but the public nature of their demands could make it impossible for Hillary Clinton to respond without being accused of political pandering, one White House aide said.

Likewise, Sen. Phil Gramm of Texas, the Republican chairman of the Banking and Finance Committee, has told financial industry lobbyists that his sweeping bank reform legislation is sure to win White House support because the first lady cannot afford to alienate Wall Street interests. But the president has stood firm in his demands for significant changes to Gramm's bill.

Puerto Rican activists have appealed to Gore and Hillary Clinton to help drive the Navy out of its only East Coast firing range, Vieques Island, a part of Puerto Rico. Navy officials also seemed to know whom to lobby on this issue: The first high-level briefing they gave in the White House was to Gore's national security adviser, Leon Fuerth.

Those issues may be far from settled. But others involving the first lady or Gore have concluded in ways favorable to the pressure groups that reached her and the vice president.

Jewish activists say they are convinced that the first lady's intervention persuaded the Justice Department to finally investigate whether Ari Halberstam was the victim of an international terrorist attack -- not simply of a gunman suffering from "road rage," as the FBI originally concluded.

David Luchins, a top aide to retiring Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan of New York and Michael Miller, a New York Jewish leader, appealed to Hillary Clinton, setting off a chain of communications that eventually reached Deputy Attorney General Eric Holder.

Though Clinton aides insist they do not know exactly what ensued, they expressed no displeasure when the Justice Department announced last week that it would take another look at the circumstances of Halberstam's death.

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